The blog Infrastructurist published an interview in 2009 with Christopher Leinberger. He has done quite a bit to bring the concept of suburban poverty to the mainstream. Leinberger attributes much of the problem to supply and demand and to changing lifestyle expectations. In other words, the magic of the market created the problem and will fix it. Leinberger thinks it will take about thirty years for suburbia to adapt. We love the sound of many of the adaptations required: walkable, mixed-use urban hubs and rail-based public transit for example. He seems to be saying it’s a tall order but achieveable even if there will be losers along the way. Perhaps this effort at structural adaptation could be put in place under government guidance as a response to what really does seem like the end of growth but a dissonance emerges right away. A continental refitting of suburbia would require epic amounts of capital to start and maintain which makes Leinberger’s ideas seem almost hallucinatory given the impairments of the global financial system. At a couple of points Leinberger indicates he is well in touch with reality. He mentions the phenomenon of suburban houses converted into flophouses for groups of unrelated men. Certainly, Leinberger’s efforts at the Brookings Institution also indicate much comprehension of suburban poverty and dysfunction. His take on what to actually do with suburbia is both attractive and disappointing.
How to Save the Suburbs: Solutions from the Man Who Saw the Whole Thing Coming
We thought it might be useful to look at popular culture for evidence of suburban poverty. Much of what you come across in popular culture is aspirational, delusional even, when it comes to portraying class and social conditions. Among the things we found is this resentful dirge from fringe Republican Hank Williams Junior. The song refers to ‘this town’ but we see symbols and elements of suburban life. Williams croons from inside, or next to, a late 1950s Cadillac, there is a motor vehicle in every scene practically. Single family dwellings and working people populate the video. Things don’t look too hot – the repo man is after the pickup and there’s no work and apparently Williams paid taxes. Awful to watch and awful to listen to. A song and video like this is produced because nobody is living what it represents? …more to come from popular culture!
According to a recent report by Rowan University and Fair Share Housing Center suburban rental affordability in New Jersey was better in 1970 than today. That’s so long ago it might as well be 1870!
Report blames zoning laws for lack of affordable housing in New Jersey
Next bus in forty-four minutes, or fifty-five minutes, except on Sundays or before seven a.m. or after rush hour, …or maybe never! Typical scheduling for hard pressed working people dependant on Suburbland’s diesel bus dominated public transit. It’s a wonder anyone can hold down a job in Sprawlville. Long, multiple-transfer bus rides across Edge Cities in order to hold down some crap job suck the life out of you. We’ve wondered about the justice of this for some time here at suburban-poverty.com. Once again the Brookings Institution rides up with the evidence. God bless Brookings!
Job sprawl and the suburbanization of poverty
Newspaper columnist Heather Mallick recently wrote with some passion about a proposed fare hike for Toronto Transit Commission users. The TTC was once the envy of many a city but now is badly stressed, barely able to reconcile the urban and suburban needs of riders. God bless you too, Heather!
Mallick: TTC fare hike like poison for the poor
editor’s note: it once took us two hours and five minutes to get home from a gig cleaning cars in North York to our place in Parkdale. We had early signs of hypothermia when we got in the door. We have not harboured resentment ever since, fuckers.
For most of us, urban street people are generally what comes to mind when we hear the word homeless. People without secure and reasonable access to permanent places to live populate the suburbs in growing numbers. They are just less readily visible. They can include ‘couch-surfing’ young people, tent campers living alongside rivers or in woodlots and people in shelters or living in a motor vehicle. They are hard to count and hard to bring services to.
“Suburban homelessness has its own set of challenges. Suburbs often lack public transportation, shelters, and government assistance agencies. By far the largest hurdle the suburban homeless have to overcome is that they are not supposed to exist.”
Last refuge for the homeless: living in the car
Swedish researchers have linked marriage stress and failure with long commutes. In sociological enquiry of any kind the underlying idea seems to be to constantly generate new questions. This study does that in droves. Big mortgages for suburban homes require major time investments in commuting. Many now live in one suburb and commute to another suburb. Not easy.
Long commutes bad for marriage
“A long commute to work might further job prospects and put more money in the bank but it could also increase the risk for divorce by 40 percent, a new study from Umeå University in northern Sweden shows”
Towards the tail end of the boom the media in North America coined the term “supercommuter” for people cruising as much as ninety minutes each way between home and workplace. Presumably that was by choice. Now, the Great Recession seems to be incentivizing some long drives.
Recession breeds wave of supercommuters
Liberal, activist, progressive, independent news voice AlterNet gets a whack in at suburban poverty in this feature article:
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development produces a host of data directly useful for assessing social conditions. Do we need a supercomputer to connect rising inequality and the stacked economic gains of the rich with suburban poverty and downward mobility?
Notes for individual countries are found on the OECD site (.pdf files):
Better than many for a long time but no reason to be smug: Canada
Faltering after some improvement: United Kingdom
Forget it, only Turkey & Mexico are worse for income inequality: United States
Some improvement but could do better: Australia
The mass appearance of one begat the other and so we find the fate of the middle class and the fate of suburban life conjoined in a fashion that would have given Eng and Chang Bunker a good fright. You could not have had one without the other. Moving forward into the Long Emergency and a world of expensive petroleum, general resource depletion, traumatic economics, badly impaired credit/financial systems and shock doctrines we may end up losing much of both suburbia and its most loyal customers. Leave it to The Atlantic Monthly to be a source of timely content for us yet again.
Can the Middle Class Be Saved?
“The Great Recession has accelerated the hollowing-out of the American middle class. And it has illuminated the widening divide between most of America and the super-rich. Both developments herald grave consequences. Here is how we can bridge the gap between us.”Elizabeth Warren is an academic expert with a specialty in credit law and consumer debt/bankruptcy issues. She was in the documentary Maxed Out and the link below takes you to a presentation she gave in 2008. 57 minutes that will open your eyes. If you have the stomache for the details of the destruction of the middle class in America block out the time. Seriously, this wonderful, articulate, compassionate and very smart woman should be the president of the USA, not that nice, utterly feckless Obama guy.
The coming collapse of the middle class
The Western Journal of Emergency Medicine published a paper this July describing problems associated with addiction services in suburban areas. This is the kind of piece that expands our understanding of what suburban poverty means in a needed, detailed way. Much of the discussion of low density, ex-urban life focusses on matters of land use, environmental sustainability, energy, politics, taste and aesthetics. We are now long beyond the point where social realities need to be considered on an equal footing with the physical design of communities.
Suburban Poverty: Barriers to Services and Injury Prevention among Marginalized Women who Use Methamphetamine